Pennsylvania: A Free Precaution; Group Offers HIV, STD Tests, Prevention Information

AIDS Community Alliance (ACA) of South Central Pennsylvania has partnered with eight other organizations to bring free HIV testing to gay bars, public housing complexes, and church breakfasts across the region. Statewide, the outreach has been a huge success, said Steve Kowelski, senior public health adviser for the state's STD program. Thousands of people have been tested, and many more have learned how to reduce risky sexual behaviors, he said.

ACA had some reservations about whether gay bar patrons in smaller towns would accept testing. Larger cities tend to have bigger, more cohesive gay populations, and being gay or lesbian is more commonplace, said Terry Kurtz, vice president and director of education services at ACA. Who would utilize the tests, he wondered -- those most at risk, or the "worried well?"

Kurtz, who grew up in the mid-state, said he tries to strike a balance between professionalism and friendliness, putting patrons at ease. "I don't want to be off-putting," he said. "People are out to have a good time and socialize ... and see friends, and to date. I'm not there to disrupt that," he said. "Our role is to help people find the resources they need and help them make their own decision."

On a recent night at Stallions in Harrisburg, ACA was offering free HIV tests. Charlie Miller and several friends stood in line, waiting for the service. "I know my status, but my friends don't. So it was sort of the buddy system," he said.

Last year, ACA conducted 680 HIV tests, of which about 1 percent were positive. ACA has been involved in the testing partnership for 18 months.